Ethics Requirements for Business Managers?

Lora Bentley

Should business managers take an oath akin to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians? One where the central premise is "Do no harm"? Last month, Jim Kim at FierceSarbox pointed to a post in the Harvard Business Publishing blog that made just such a suggestion.


Angel Cabrera, who serves as president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, said the school's board of trustees has developed its own code of honor, which is incorporated into its admissions process, curriculum, and graduation ceremonies. Cabrera writes:

We are yet to prove empirically whether the initiative will have a meaningful impact on the professional conduct of our graduates, but third-party assessments indicate that our students may be more sensitive to the broader set of social responsibilities of managers than the average MBA student.

He emphasizes that "service to the greater good" is not inconsistent with creating value for shareholders and says that it "grounds shareholder value morally."


The idea is an intriguing one, but as Kim notes, morality cannot be legislated, and "bad actors" will always abound. For an oath like this to work, it has to have teeth. Lawyers and physicians are held to ethics standards by their licensing boards. If they don't act ethically, they risk losing their licenses, and by extension, their livelihoods.


Until a similar standard is in place for business managers, an oath they take in school may not stick with them past graduation.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 20, 2009 8:07 AM Dinyar Dinyar  says: in response to Paul Toth

Are all, or even most, lawyers really ethical, in spite of the oath they take?

The Tata Group in India has a clearly defined Code of Conduct. The Group takes this very seriously, and infringements can lead to loss of jobs, and in really extreme cases, prosecution.

May 20, 2009 1:13 PM H flomberg H flomberg  says:

There is a superb statement of morality. It's been around for about 3,000 years - it's called the Bible.

Perhaps if we stopped trying to destroy our Judeo-Christian basis we might be in better shape?

May 20, 2009 6:51 PM Paul Toth Paul Toth  says:

It might not have the teeth of an enforcement body but if Business schools keep hammering Ethics as part of each class it will have similar effects. Actually, I believe that if ethics are taught as part of each class, it would be ingrained, and not need an enforcement body. In my earlier education, I was writing in the curriculum indoctrination; then along came the acceptance of both sexes in most of my reading and writing assignments.  Both stuck with me, in that I have eliminated my sexism bias, and accept that writing is now part of any class. Ethics is sadly lacking. I took only one class on Ethics in my BA degree, one class in my MBA degree and need to take one class in the DBA program. I recommend that we include ethics it in at least every MBA class if we want to truly have ethical leaders akin to Doctors and Lawyers.  PAul

May 20, 2009 7:24 PM William Goodwin William Goodwin  says:

A great deal of thought and work in this area has been done by the CAUX Roundtable.  It's an organization of international business people who are committed to ethical capitalism.  See www.cauxroundtable.org.

Jun 4, 2009 6:47 PM Randy Williamson Randy Williamson  says:

Any code of ethics is useless if the person it applies to has no personal ethincs or morals.

And doing so just because it says to in a manual is not of value. You have to believe in what you are doing.

Jun 4, 2009 7:39 PM Paul Toth Paul Toth  says: in response to Randy Williamson

I agree that a person has to begin with an ethical basis, but how do you suggest to cultivate that in the business world?

Jun 5, 2009 10:39 AM Bob Pate Bob Pate  says:

The expectation that managers "get the job done and take care of their people" was broken with Reaganomics.  Trickle down economics and deregulation has permitted the unethical "me first" attitude that so represent my generation.  That said. How do we fix it?

The Bar and AMA come from traditions thousands of years old.  It is the old definition of professionalism.  Likewise the guilds of Europe provided standards of conduct for their members.  A ship's Pilot-Master in the days of exploration was sworn to "take the ship out and bring it back" under the most severe oaths of honor. 

If an oath is to be required it could be administered as part of obtaining a degree, such as duly swearing that the canidate has been not only examined as having passed the requirements but that they knowningly and truthfully completed the course with honor. 

Another oath taking opportunity occurs when company officers begin their terms of office. Many clubs, fraternities, and other organizations have swearing in ceremonies for their officers that require the officer to "faithfully serve in their office and abide, and uphold the organization charter and by-laws".  Corporate boards, if they haven't already, should be following these examples as part of their annual stockholders meetings. 

What may happen, and will happen if Corporations do not govern themselves,  will be the closer scrutiny of executive contracts by the press, governments and others for clauses that require executive responsibility to protect the assets of company, shareholders and employees.  We may find ourselves in a future regulatory world where executive contracts are hotly debated and contested in the same manner as anti-trust and merger agreements are contested today.


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